The roads south of Copper Harbor were eerily familiar in the early morning light. There was a time, some years past, when I had drove the Mandan Loop in a failed attempt on High Rock Point. When I pulled off the Burma Road into the parking lot for Estivant Pines I wondered if I had passed by this spot before, too frustrated by the tough roads to stop for a quick hike. At least I was here now.
Estivant Pines is a sanctuary for untouched old growth white pines. Thanks partly to the inaccessibility of this area and mostly to some weird legality issues, this patch of forest is an ancient reminder of what the Upper Peninsula once looked like. Somewhat. Not all of the forests up here were white pines and not all of it is as scraggly and nasty as Keweenaw undergrowth. I like to pretend that the nurtured land of the Huron Mountain Club are closer to past stands, clear needle-soft ground under legions of homogenous giant pines. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
There is one thing that Estivant has over the trees of the Huron Mountains - these white pines are old. A sign near the parking lot reminded me of this. Some of the stands are over six hundred years old, dating far beyond the more recent pillage of the UP's natural resources. After reading the rest of the informational stand I trotted quickly down the trail, looking forward to seeing these ancient giants.
The trails were wide with long plank boardwalks reaching across muddy spots. The ground wasn't too rugged near the path, a few rock outcroppings here and there. I was expecting a tougher area so close to the center of the Keweenaw Ridge. After maybe ten minutes of easy walking I bumped into the first giant pine, leaning awkardly off a weird slope of land. And then more showed up.
They were quite big, wide around and reaching tall to the sky, though not redwood-scale by any stretch. I have bumped into a few huge trees in the south, up on the Peshekee and in the Hurons, that approached this size seen here. But not this many. First a few, than a dozen and more popped up within sight around the trail. Giant white pines were scattered all through the forest.
It wasn't all white pine. The majority of the forest was young deciduous. Old growth was merely the sprinkling on top. This was a huge change compared to the nurtured forests of the Club, where anything that wasn't a pine or cedar would be cut down like weeds in a garden. I wondered if this land was actually logged in the past, if only the best trees were cut down and the ones that remained were undesired, and that this past clearing had allowed younger trees to show up.
The trail split and I did too, heading southwest along the Cathedral Grove loop. It changed quickly, shrinking from a wide gravel way to a narrow footpath that wound along steep slopes. Now this was getting fun. It was still easy to keep on, just a bit more rugged with random rocks and trunks poking out from the forest.
There are two main loops that form a rough 'eight' in the sanctuary. The small western one is Cathedral Grove and the larger eastern Memorial Grove. The eastern one is newer, I think, a recent addition through some impressive stands. Each loop is roughly a mile. My planned route included both loops and would give me a nice route along through much of the park.
After dropping a bit in elevation a few more white pines showed up, including an interesting hollowed-out trunk sitting right in the center of the trail. What really caught my eye, though, was a sign for the Fallen Giant Trail. The sign warned of tough hiking. This sounded cool. I had no idea how far the Fallen Giant was, though, and I was trying to keep to a tight schedule today. I sadly passed it by.
Later, armed with the power of the internet, I did some more research into this side trek. The white pine known as the Fallen Giant fell in the 1980s and sits just south of the Montreal River. As the bird flies it sits about a third of a mile away from the Estivant trails, but it's hard to say how windy the trail could get through the swamp and over the river. There is a wide swamp in the way that could lead to either wet slogging or a long bypass. Honestly, it looks like it'd be much easier to visit the site by coming in from the Mandan Loop.
The cathedral showed up just past the side trail, a half-dozen giant trees springing up on the trail's edge. They were impressive, standing next to these huge trunks. I spent a little time peering up at the scattered branches far overhead, twisted by wind and time.
It felt like much more than a single mile had passed by the time the start of the Memorial Loop showed up. With a brief check to make sure I was still on time I headed east up a slowly climbing grade. Between climbing out of the little dip from the last trail and heading into the rising sun it felt like a good ten degree difference on this leg.
The path climbed and then dipped without passing that many new trees. In fact, it was hard to make out any white pines through the thick foliage that now surrounded me. Lush green undergrowth crowded around, dew-wet and clingy.
Without any large trees to distract me I walked quickly, making it to the halfway point of the loop in short order. I was beginning to lose hope on seeing anything when a small clearing opened up in front of me. A short distance beyond was a huge tree with thick roots reaching out across the trail. The size and proximity of this guy was impressive after so many younger, leafy things.
The loop soon closed and I was back on the center path, on my way back to the parking lot. Along the way I passed a tiny little cairn, a small rock-man that I had totally missed on the way in. I wished the little rock-man farewell as I trotted back to my car, eager to head out towards Lac la Belle and a much more rugged adventure.